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Can a legislative exchange program solve (at least some of) Congress’ partisan woes?

As part of the program, Rep. Angie Craig recently welcomed Michigan Republican Rep. Peter Meijer for a visit to Minnesota’s Second District.

Rep. Angie Craig and Rep. Peter Meijer shown visiting a veterans home in Hastings.
Rep. Angie Craig and Rep. Peter Meijer shown visiting a veterans home in Hastings.
Office of Rep. Angie Craig

It’s normal for Republicans and Democrats to disagree and even quarrel on various issues — that is, after all, the foundation of a two-party system. But ever since January 6, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and threatened the lives of Democratic lawmakers, tensions in Congress have been high, to say the least.

Partisan tensions have been simmering in the House since the insurrection, leading to outbursts, retaliatory tit-for-tats and a backlogged legislative pipeline.

Despite the deep partisan divides plaguing the current Congress, some organizations are working to bridge the gap. The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, runs the American Congressional Exchange Program: a planned visit with two members of the opposite party and different states aimed at building connections across the aisle.

Second District Rep. Angie Craig participated in the exchange program in her home district, inviting Michigan Republican Rep. Peter Meijer to join her for a full day of meeting with constituents.

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The grocery scion and the corporate exec

The Bipartisan Policy Center, the D.C.-based think tank that runs the exchange program, generally works to create policy solutions that appeal to both sides of the political spectrum. The BPC regularly hosts panels with members of Congress and facilitates calls among bipartisan groups of lawmakers, including a recent call with House members to discuss the situation unfolding in Afghanistan. The majority of BPC’s funding comes from charitable philanthropies, and the remainder from individual and corporate donors.

For the program, Craig was matched with Meijer, who is from Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city, located in the western part of the state. Meijer is the grandson of late retail magnate Fred Meijer, who invented the supercenter store format that made the Meijer family grocery chain a major presence in the Midwest.

Meijer says he wasn’t overly involved with the family business, though he did stock shelves growing up. But according to a financial disclosure form he filed in 2019, the Michigan Republican has access to multiple trusts, including a blind family trust that has over $50 million in assets. Meijer loaned himself $1.4 million to fund his congressional campaign.

Craig’s background is a little different from that: she grew up in Arkansas, and started her career in journalism before moving to Minnesota to work in human resources at St. Jude Medical and eventually running for Congress. Craig is also the first lesbian mom to hold a congressional seat.

For the visit, Meijer met Craig at 8:45 a.m., starting off the day at St. Paul Port Authority, a governmental economic development agency that focuses on projects like office spaces and commercial areas. It was a long day for the lawmakers — they were together until around 7:00 p.m., visiting 3M, Omni Viking Lakes Hotel, Dakota County Technical College and the Veterans Home of Hastings. Craig and Meijer met with business and civil leaders from the Twin Cities Metro area, local mayors and leadership from each of the venues they visited.

“At first, this seemed like a huge time commitment,” Craig said. “Peter spent probably 14 hours on the ground in the district, and I’m going to do the same thing in October. But, you know, figuring out how we work together, learn to trust each other and engage in strong policy disagreements…is really important to me.”

Craig saw the day as a good learning opportunity for both of them: “He spent the day with a lesbian mother of four who represents a pretty diverse district,” Craig said. “Certainly we have our policy differences, but you know, we were able to sort through where we have some commonality as well during the visit.”

Rep. Angie Craig and Rep. Peter Meijer at the St. Paul Port Authority.
Office of Rep. Angie Craig
Rep. Angie Craig and Rep. Peter Meijer at the St. Paul Port Authority.

Was the exchange program a success?

The main goal of the congressional exchange is to “provide opportunities for members to learn about issues from a different perspective, enabling them to more effectively perform their responsibilities.” And according to the program’s website, a predicted outcome of the exchanges is further collaboration on both policy matters and legislation.

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But a limiting factor for that goal may be that the only members who would agree to participate in such a program are already the ones most likely to believe in bipartisan cooperation in the first place. In the case of Craig and Meijer, according to ProPublica’s “Head to Head” project, the two lawmakers have disagreed on 63 percent of their votes. In comparison, Craig disagreed with Minnesota Rep. Jim Hagedorn in 73 percent of votes, and 74 percent with Rep. Michelle Fischbach.

And Meijer is no stranger to shows of bipartisanship, either. In June, he joined Minnesota Third District Rep. Dean Phillips to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” Literally. The two congressmen took off their shoes on the Capitol steps and switched with each other. (Craig said that when she first saw Meijer, she asked if he was wearing those same shoes, and said she definitely would not be participating in a shoe swap.)

Perhaps more tellingly, Meijer was one of just 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach former President Donald Trump. (All of Minnesota’s Republican representatives voted “no” to impeachment.) He also voted in favor of creating a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Of the impeachment vote, Meijer said that Trump had “betrayed his oath of office by seeking to undermine our constitutional process, and he bears responsibility for inciting the insurrection we suffered.”

Despite some points of agreement, though, Craig wasn’t sure whether she and Meijer had made enough of a solid connection yet to fully collaborate on legislation once lawmakers’ summer recess concludes. She said that after visiting Dakota County Technical College, she realized that she and Meijer shared a commitment to matching the workforce with the technical skills needed.

“I think working together on career and technical education is something that I certainly walked away hoping that we could find some opportunities to work together even more closely,” Craig said. The two lawmakers also agreed on funding for infrastructure projects like highways, road, bridges and broadband were a top priority.

“This was an opportunity to take some of those progressive and conservative principles in a friendly way, and sort of test one another and each other’s ideas about the world, and maybe even find some common ground,” Craig said. “And at the end of the day, I think that we discovered we’ve got a lot of things in common, but there are also some things that totally still divide us from a policy perspective.”

Craig will head to Meijer’s Michigan district in October for a day-long visit.